The Ambeere is a tribe of people who live in the Mbeere district of the south-eastern part of Eastern Province. The name ‘Mbeere’ is a Kimbeere word that means ‘first’, coming from their belief that they were first to occupy the territory they do today. According to most accounts, they share a common origin with the Kikuyu, Chuka, and other Bantu-speaking communities; that is, they moved eastwards from the Congo in Central Africa before moving to Embu. There, they had a fight with the Embu tribe that caused them to move to the drier parts of Embu. Different sources give different accounts of what exactly caused the disagreement, but the most prevalent is that they were denied food and generally mistreated by their Embu counterparts, causing them to nickname the Embu ‘The Clan of Rebels’ due to their stubbornness to give the Mbeere food. They set a day to fight out their differences but on that day, while the Mbeere brought sticks, the Embu brought swords disguised as sticks. This, of course, led to the Mbeere suffering a great loss and retreating to the drier, less fertile parts of Kiethiga where they settled. The Mbeere, like most if not all communities, greatly valued the institution of marriage. Courtship, however, was a rigorous process. It began when a man spotted a woman he would be interested in. The criterion for finding a suitor was to find a woman who would be unlikely to give the man pain in future. A man would observe a woman from afar, usually as she worked. If she sat while working in the garden or kept moving back and forth between her home and the garden, she would be deemed lazy and, hence, unfit to be a wife. If, however she passed this test, then the man was free to proceed with the courtship.
The man would arrange secret meetings with his potential bride, courting her until she was, at last, convinced to get married to him. This was only half the battle. Despite the woman accepting the proposal, the man still had to gain the approval of the parents of the woman he sought to marry. He would give the woman mbaki (tobacco) which was prepared by his father to take to her parents. The woman would explain where the tobacco came from. The parents would then conduct a meticulous investigation of their daughter’s suitor in order to ensure he was right for her. Laziness, affiliation to witchcraft and sharing a clan were some of the factors that could stop the parents from giving their blessing. They were especially keen on the clan of the man as marrying from the same clan was taboo, akin to marrying one’s own sibling. If, however, they were not of the same clan, courtship could continue. The man would walk to the gate and sneeze loudly to announce his arrival. He was not allowed to stand in the path used by the girl’s father used when coming or leaving home. A child would be sent to inquire who it was. The man would tell the child of his intention to marry. The man’s father would proceed to seek some elders to assist with next stage; a ceremony called uthoni, which was a traditional marriage ceremony.If the relationship was approved, the girl would visit the man’s house and help with common household duties in order to prove her worth as a wife. Elders would then come up with the dowry the suitor would pay. Dowry would be paid with bulls, cows, goats, honey and beer. Payment did not have to be paid all at once. It was perfectly acceptable for it to be paid in intervals. These intervals would be agreed upon by both parties. During this time a man would be allowed to stay with his wife. However, even if the man was able to pay the dowry in full, he was still obliged to occasionally take gifts to his in-laws. This was in accordance with the phrase; ‘Cia muthoniwa itithiraga’ (You cannot complete dowry payment).
Polygamy was a norm in the Mbeere community and it was a symbol of wealth to have numerous wives. There was no limit to the number of wives one could marry. Indeed, a story is told of a chief named Kombo Munyiri who had over seventy wives. He only stopped marrying when he found out that one of the girls he had been interested in was in fact one of his daughters. Once married, a wife had her own separate dwelling in her husband’s homestead. The husband had his own quarters at the center of the homestead where he could entertain his age-mates. Co-wives as well had their own dwellings. Each of the man’s wives was expected to raise her children separately.
These traditions have largely been forgotten in modern times and this has proven to have advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that the reduction or complete removal of dowry has seen those who would have been kept apart by a hefty bride price able to be together. Also, absence or reduction of bride price serves to curb overexploitation of the man by the woman’s relatives, who would use the chance to demand astronomical bride prices, forcing the man to go into debt trying to pay it. It has also led to women and getting a better position in society. These days they are seen as equals in a marriage instead of property or a simple symbol of wealth. Women proposing to men has these days become a norm when traditionally it would have been unheard of. They also have just as much of a right to call for a divorce as a man does if they feel dissatisfied with the relationship.
A major disadvantage is increase in divorce rate due to hastened and inelaborate courtship. Most of the people in modern society rush into marriage without getting to know each other very well. This leads to the couple realizing that they were in fact incompatible when they are already in wedlock, leading to a financially and emotionally draining divorce.
Similarly, couples run the unfortunate risk of marrying relatives. This is because genealogy is not put under the intense scrutiny it was traditionally. Apart from the sacrilegious nature of marriage between those who are closely related, there are also medical repercussions for the children that come from a union like that. In conclusion, it is clear to see that traditions have suffered a recession owing mainly to Westernization. However, there is no reason why the positive aspects of this tradition should not be incorporated into normal modern society while leaving out the negative aspects of it.